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A year on, regime maintains free expression onslaught

Demonstrators attend a protest in Istanbul against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad as they hold pictures of two Turkish journalists that are missing in Syria
Demonstrators attend a protest in Istanbul against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad as they hold pictures of two Turkish journalists that are missing in Syria

REUTERS/Osman Orsal

On 15 March, the one-year anniversary of democracy protests in Syria, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has found the government to blame for at least five of the eight journalists killed. Even with the international spotlight on recent unrest, journalists and bloggers continue to be targeted with arrests and detentions, and the staff of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) are still being held, report CPJ, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to CPJ, eight journalists have been killed on duty since November, at least five in circumstances that raise questions about government culpability.

Take local videographer Ferzat Jarban, who was directly targeted by government forces in November. The first journalist killed in Syria, he started documenting protests and the government's violent crackdown in his home of Al-Qusayr.

Miles Amoore, a reporter for "The Sunday Times" of London, reported that secret police in a van had seized Jarban, tortured him, and delivered his mutilated body to a town square.

CPJ notes that circumstantial evidence and witness statements point to the possibility that government forces took deliberate, hostile action against the press that led to the deaths of three international journalists, Gilles Jacquier, Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik.

In spite of the high-profile deaths, the Syrian regime continues its assault on journalists, which ANHRI says is designed "to prevent the world from witnessing its massacres." Some of the latest to be arrested include Syrian blogger and rap singer Mohamed Abu Hajar, journalist Rudy Othman, and blogger Jamal al-Omas.

Plus, the authorities are still holding eight of the 16 people who were arrested during a 16 February raid on the local media rights group SCM. At least 20 rights groups, including many of IFEX's international and regional members, have reiterated their demands for the staff's immediate release.

And there is still no news of Turkish journalists Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun, as well as their fixer, who were abducted by Shabiha militiamen near the northwestern city of Idlib on 10 March and then handed over to members of the Syrian intelligence services, says RSF.

"Yet one year after the Syrian uprising began, killing the messenger has not silenced the message," said CPJ.

Despite the Assad government barring international reporters from entering the country for allegedly being spies or having links to terrorist organisations, CPJ notes that at least 20 other international journalists have publicly identified themselves as having slipped into Syria in the past two months to report on the unrest.

And local citizens-turned-videographers who have shot thousands of hours of footage have also sustained their level of coverage so far this year.

"If anything, the deaths of the journalists broadened public attention to the government's crackdown on the civilian population - particularly its determination to silence independent coverage," said CPJ.

A coalition of 200 rights organisations from 27 countries - including RSF, Human Rights Watch and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) - marked the one-year of violence in Syria by calling on Russia to back UN Security Council action to end the crisis.

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